You've been writing haiku wrong

Hi, I'm Mr. Sato. Let's talk about haiku. You probably wrote haiku
in elementary school, and that's a good place to
start learning about haiku. A child can easily master two of the
elements of a good traditional haiku: the number of syllables
and the subject matter. But there's more to haiku than that. Haiku
is a serious poetic form written by adults for adults, so it's wrong to dismiss it as
poetry for little kids. I like to teach it in high school. Now, I'm not great at writing haiku, but I think I can help you take the next step. First, the basics: syllables. Here's a definition. Couldn't be clearer, right? It's a lot easier to understand it if I give
you some examples. "Water," is two syllables. "wa" is the first
syllable, and "ter" is the second syllable. "Misunderstanding" has five syllables. Mis – un – der – stan – ding. Five. Now it's clear, right? If in doubt, you can check a dictionary to
see how many syllables a word has. In this dictionary, these little dots separate the syllables But it can be trickier than you think: for example, in the dictionary, "soil" is one syllable, not two. But pause this video and try saying that as one syllable: "soil."
Still kinda sounds like two, right? In the dictionary, the word "interesting"
is four syllables, but when I say it the way I normally do, it sure sounds like
three to me. I don't say "in-ter-es-ting," I say "intresting." I have a similar problem with "chocolate"
and "different." The dictionary is generally the last word
on syllable counts, but I think that sometimes you just
have to go with your ear. I know some teachers will disagree
with me, but if you hear a word as a certain number of
syllables, and are pretty sure everyone but Daniel Webster
would agree with you, then go with your ear. Poetry must be sensitive to language the way we actually hear it and experience it. And if you're worried about your grade, check with your teacher first. Now that we've established what
a syllable is, we can talk about 5 – 7 – 5. A traditional haiku is an unrhymed poem that is written in three lines, and consists of seventeen syllables exactly. Line 1 is five syllables long, line 2 is seven syllables long,
and line 3 is five syllables long. To be honest, according to Cor van den Heuvel, most poets writing in English these days stray from these rules, being more interested in capturing the essence of haiku than in following a strict syllable count. These are sometimes called "liberated haiku." If you want to know about this kind of haiku, this anthology is a good source. But I think a traditional haiku is a really
useful exercise for people needing to learn how to use language with more discipline and economy. And if you want to write a traditional haiku, then you must follow these syllable
counts: 5 – 7 – 5. That's the first, and best known, element of a haiku. The second element is subject matter. These days, haiku are written about everything, and I mean everything. Like this one. What's funny is that they always always follow the 5-7-5 rule, I guess because it's the only haiku-like thing about them. But a traditional haiku has something to
do with nature. It doesn't have to be 100% about nature, but it shouldn't be an abstract idea, like "freedom is not free." It should take place in the
natural, physical world, not the world of abstract ideas. The haiku also usually contains one seasonal word, called a kigo — "spring," "summer," "autumn," "snow," "icicles," "sunflowers," even "baseball"
because baseball is a spring sport. American football takes place in the fall. The following haiku was written by Kaga no Chiyo, Japan's most famous woman writer of haiku. It was translated
into English by R. H. Blyth. It's translated from the Japanese, so in Japanese it followed the 5-7-5 rule. But do you see that because
there a flower and dew, we can infer that it's probably springtime, on a cool morning, cool enough
for dew to form. It is cold enough for dew in the fall, too, but most flowers aren't blooming
in autumn, are they? So this poem takes place in
a specific season, out in nature. You could refer to the hot sun and
the grass under your bare feet, and we'd know it was summer. Get the idea? So a traditional haiku is set
in nature in some way, and takes place in a specific season. And now we get to structure, the part that
I've seen in the poems, but that I haven't seen taught in classrooms. Good haiku, like all good writing, has a structure. It isn't long enough for a
beginning, middle, and end, really, but there are two parts.
What I've seen in haiku is that it has some kind of shift or movement
from the beginning to the end. First, it opens with a clear, sensory image. Then, in the second part, there's usually
some kind of surprise or sudden insight. (Insight means a deep
and personal understanding of something.) And here's a tip —
poets sometimes use a long dash to separate these two parts, and it doesn't add a syllable. In Kago no Chiyo's haiku, she creates an image of a red flower (rouge means red) that has gathered dew in its cup and on its petals. It's an image of natural
beauty. There aren't many people who would look at that
flower and not say, "wow, that's nice." That's the first part, the sensory image. Then, she shows that when the dew
is spilled out of the flower, it's just plain water. The thing that was so beautiful on
the flower, is just ordinary when separated from it. See, there's a movement from
the image to an insight about it. It's definitely possible to overanalyze a
haiku, but from this poem you might infer a meaning or theme from it, such as, a thing is special in a certain context, but removed from its natural setting, it can become meaningless and dull. Like, let's say your friend has a chunk of broken concrete on his bookcase. It's just a piece of concrete, like something you'd find on the street. But if you found
out that it was a piece of the Berlin Wall that made world headlines when it was torn down in 1989, well, now it's special. It wasn't special when it was disassociated from the Berlin Wall,
and it was special when it was. Just like the water is nothing special
when separated from the rouge flower. Some things are valuable not
because of their intrinsic value, but because of their context. You see, you can get a lot meaning out of
seventeen syllables. Here's another one I like. This translator
retained the 5-7-5 syllable count. In this haiku, there's an expectation
created. You experience being a person outdoors at night, looking up at a sky that's described
as lonely, which is more a reflection of the speaker's own emotional state than a description of an actual sky, right? A sky can't be lonely. It's autumn, so the air is cool. Now, in your
imagination, feel the coolness of the air, and hold on to his feeling of loneliness,
now your loneliness. Next, you, seeing through the speaker's eyes, are looking to see where the moon is. The expectation is that you'll
find the moon, of course. But after the long dash, you see
lights burning in a castle up on the mountainside instead.
There's a little surprise. Now, looking out through the eyes of
Mr. Santoka, what do you feel when you get this surprise?
Are you pleased? Disappointed? Remember, in the previous
line you were feeling lonely. Maybe the lights mean there are people there and relief from your loneliness. Maybe not. It depends on the reader, really. You and I might have very different
responses to the same event, and that's what life is like, isn't it? But the important thing for this lesson here is that, just like in the poem about the dew, there's a shift in mood
from the first part, feeling lonely and looking for the moon,
and the second part, seeing something you didn't expect. That tension or movement is necessary for the haiku to be really dynamic, to be
really alive and meaningful. It's like how a sonnet has a "turn" or "volta" between
the first part and the last part. If the poet just describes a pretty scene,
it's like an unfinished thought. It's static and lifeless. Even an alert and sensitive
reader might think, "yeah, it's pretty, so what?" because it lacks structure and movement. One note on this: make sure when you think up the little surprise at the end that it isn't totally random. It has to make sense in the context of the
poem. It shouldn't be something irrelevant and out-of-the-blue.
Like this one. I gotta admit, that made me smile, but, really, it's a perfect example of a poem that contains a shift that is completely random and meaningless. Please don't do this, even if it's funny. And by the way, the Japanese word haiku can be singular or plural; you don't add an "s" to make it plural. Lastly, a haiku should not rhyme. Rhyming
draws the reader's attention to the language, but haiku
should be transparent, like a lens that lets you see something clearly. A rhyme is like a fingerprint on the glass saying "hey, look at this!"
So no rhyming, please. That's a lot of talk about a tiny poem, I
know. But that's the magic of the haiku. You can unpack a haiku and
find a whole world in there. Just remember there are three parts to a strong traditional haiku: the 5-7-5 syllable count, the subject matter, and the two-part structure. Enjoy writing your haiku! Let the world look through your eyes and feel what you feel for just one brilliant moment!

26 thoughts on “You've been writing haiku wrong

  1. Ons are moras not syllables. The japanese however mostly have short wovels, the words are almost always ended in wovels too and their consonants stand alone therefore most of their syllables are one mora long. However they handle the exceptions as those deserve, as two mora syllables.
    E.g. this haiku by Issa:

    Edo no ame (5)
    nan goku nonda (7)
    hototogisu (5)

  2. this is amazing thank you I even finally understood the concept of the syllables! and now I can write haiku THAANNNNKS

  3. To write an haiku you have to be Japanese that's all. The rest are just short naturalistic poems. Please Americans stop to put everything under your rules.

  4. I don't care for rules.
    I learn em, that I admit
    But just to break em
    In the end.

    Haha, honestly, all those rules are nice and you can write wonderful haikus with them, but in the end art must be free, even if at least one rule is held onto.
    I do enjoy haikus of all kind, even alot most people wouldn't agree to be true haikus.
    "Please don't do this" sounds like an invitation in my eyes 😀

  5. If youre curious, it is just a feeling that we get in an attempt to be described through the most distilled way possible.


    Eleven fragments
    Words, while glued to photographs
    Glitter in the mist

    (I should warn you, I definitely disregarded some of the few rules. But they're haiku in spirit, even if not in strict form. Also vermillion is three syllables, I don't even care. Fight me)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *